How Do You Read/View Work with an Elaborately Interconnected Plot?
June 9, 2018 2:28 PM   Subscribe

I always struggle with fiction or drama where there are elaborate parallels between different plot elements. The issue I have is it's hard to focus on things like atmosphere and character in an intuitive way while still feeling like I'm fully appreciating the connections the author has designed.

A simple example is in Norwegian TV drama "Occupied" (Netflix)--there was an episode where a lot of characters told lies to others.
While I'm watching, I picked up on a few things, such as the juxtaposition of a character having positive motivations for lying with a character that was acting cowardly, but rationalized the lie. Issue for me is that if I sat down after watching and really analyzed the episode, I could pick up on a lot more parallels like that, and other themes I wasn't initially aware of as well.
So, I'd be interested to hear the range of approaches others try. Are some people such good readers/viewers that they intuitively pick up on stuff like this? How does one get better at it? For me, it's as if I'm missing some connection between right and left hemispheres of my brain--I can either enjoy being in the moment with the fiction, or I can analyze connections, but I feel bad at integrating the two.....
posted by Jon44 to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Watch it twice (or more) and focus on different things each time. I think it’s normal to need multiple viewings to understand everything in a movie or TV episode.
posted by michaelh at 3:41 PM on June 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't think you're missing any brain connections. When I was a teenager I used to feel somewhat dumb when reading TV recaps, because I'd see reviewers and commenters picking up on thematic threads, plot parallels, and emotional through-lines that I hadn't noticed on my first viewing. I too thought there was something wrong with my brain....figured it was related to my executive dysfunction. (I have ADHD.)

But then I became a serial rewatcher of favorite TV shows, and gained an expert-level understanding of at least a couple shows. I probably know more about MAD MEN and the original run of TWIN PEAKS than the actual creators and writing staff could tell you off the top of their heads. And here's the thing: I still sometimes uncover new structural parallels or thematic resonances when I rewatch episodes. If I used to feel stupid reading recaps, it's probably just because I was only attending to the thematic through-lines that the reviewer noticed and I hadn't, instead of appreciating the things that we'd both noticed, or that I noticed but the reviewer hadn't. There is a LOT of information to take in over the course of hourlong TV episodes, and entire TV seasons, and the course of a show's cumulative run. None of us are ever going to catch all of a show's potential meanings, in part because there is theoretically no limit to the meaning of an artwork. Even the creators themselves do not have a full understanding of what a particular episode or season or even show is "doing." Much of writing is subconscious, and a writer often doesn't realize what a scene or line or detail is for until later. (I will allow that the artistic process of a TV writers' room differs from almost every other form of writing, and it's probably one of the reasons that even great TV shows succumb to thematic over-obviousness...but even so, I maintain there's a lot of subconscious activity involved.)

All that said, if you do want to "get more" out of TV episodes, you should consider watching episodes at least twice. I would also advise taking notes, as if you know you'll be writing an essay on it later. Alternately, if I've misread your skill level and you're saying that story patterns just don't come naturally to you, you might take a local college class in film or literature. But seriously, I bet you're picking up on more than you think. That'll become more obvious if you get into rewatching episodes.
posted by desert outpost at 3:50 PM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is what rewatches are for--catching all the stuff you missed the first time! And find a discussion forum/subreddit/discord/fanfare page for the show and see what other people are picking up on.
posted by lovecrafty at 3:59 PM on June 9, 2018

I think stories like these are intended to make you feel like a character. Each one has partial and possibly corrupted versions of the truth, and as the observor of the narrative, so do you -- at least, on your first viewing. Consider it part of the fun. You're not supposed to get it. The tangledness of the web is the point.

So as to how, one thing to think about is the nature of the ambiguities. What is it you don't know? What is unreliable in the story? What is its nature, its characteristics? Asking these questions sometimes helps to be aware of and get into the story.

And I kniw what you mean, since despite myself I try to piece everything together as I watch and feel uneasy if I get lost. I vividly remember being bewildered and frustrated by LA Confidential and other noirish stuff until I started thinking this way about them.
posted by Philemon at 4:27 PM on June 9, 2018

I loved "Occupied" but don't think it's really worth trying to understand any more deeply than the immediate experience gave me. It's one thing if you're studying a work, and another if you simply love something so much you reread it and find deeper levels and connections each time (Jane Austen and Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series for me), but for most of what I watch and read, I have no desire to try to get more out of any particular work than is available the first time through. There are SO MANY things available to watch and read, and my life is finite.
posted by kestralwing at 5:41 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

In addition to reading or watching more than once, as others have suggested, have you tried taking notes as you proceed? When I genuinely haven't had time to re-read material, I've found that marginalia (or, if you're more meticulous than I am, a separate set of notes) has helped me make connections as I go.
posted by platitudipus at 6:05 PM on June 9, 2018

If it makes you feel any better, it took me like 10 years to appreciate The Big Lebowski as a unified story.

Seconding rewatches.
posted by rhizome at 6:34 PM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some stuff can work better on re-watch or re-read because you pick up what you maybe missed first time, but other stuff can really suffer second time around.

The first time I watched Memento I was totally blown away by the complexity of the structure & the way that super-important plot points were dropped in casually that made you re-think pretty much everything prior to that point. Then I watched it again, already knowing the surprises & the twists that were coming, & I thought it was crass & exploitive.

I guess my favourite kind of experience of any work is to fully immerse myself in the flow of it - let it take me wherever it's going to go, and I pick up whatever I pick up from it. If I'm alert & the work is complex, that can be a mind-altering experience. If I miss stuff around the edges, so be it. There's only ever one first time, and I love that first time experience. I'm sure I missed a lot of the literary allusions in Possession, but if I go back to re-read, I'm never going to feel the same beautiful nostalgia & sorrow that I felt when I first read the Postscript, where "Two people met, on a hot May day, and never later mentioned their meeting."

At least, that's what I thought. But I picked it up again just now to find the quotation, and I'm finding it very hard to put it down again, and the tears are flowing quite as freely as they did first time. So maybe I will re-read it, starting today.
posted by rd45 at 12:48 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing rewatch. IMO it's more rewarding to invest more time in fewer, high-quality shows than to keep up with a lot of shows. Or if you simply must follow a lot of shows, pick a few good ones that are worth focusing on and let the rest be in your "something to have on while I'm cleaning" rotation.

If it's a current show, I like to watch the episode, read some discussion/commentary, then rewatch the episode before the next episode. I then like to rewatch the whole season, sometimes twice (once shortly after the season finale, one shortly before the next season premiere). Once the series has concluded, I might then binge-rewatch the entire thing, depending on how invested I am in the fandom.

Still trying to figure out an optimal rewatch strategy for old shows that can be binged all at once or that are released an entire season at a time.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:57 PM on June 10, 2018

« Older Hype up moving to the Bay Area/SF   |   Best Place for a Non-Schlocky Honeymoon... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.